The Objective: Ride the rarely spoken of bountiful bike networks scattered across the northern region of British Columbia by train.
“You guys look frazzled, you must not travel by train often,” stated a friendly freckled face that stood near Trish Bromley and myself at the Terrace BC Train Station. Her comment gave us our first insight into the slightly looser than expected train program we were about to embark on. After clocking a lot of time in international airports, Trish and I were expecting some of the same formalities including prompt schedules, the lack of these formalities was quickly realized to be a gift. We would soon learn that “train time” knows no time zones or exact schedule despite what your ticket might say, but it got us where we needed to and left enough time to soak up the culture, personalities, and provided opportunities to beg for bike trail beta which actually required no begging at all.
Practicing silly bike stunts next to the train tracks we were surely entertaining the usual train commuting crowd with our antics outside of the historical quaint train station. We heard it hum, the train was coming for us. Unfamiliar with the protocol of loading our bikes Trish and I stood curbside until the majority of the passengers had loaded, then to our surprise, the conductor hopped down from the engine car and chatted to us about bikes. As per any authority, we were worried when he approached us that maybe our bikes were not welcome aboard, but the truth was that he was excited about our endeavors and gave us a hand, a high five and hopped back in to drive the train.
Loading our bikes onto the Via Rail train car felt foreign and wrong – bringing flashbacks to the awkward chairlift struggle from my first time riding in a bike park – luckily this wasn’t a moving target. We nestled our bikes into the luggage area and snagged seats. Brewing coffee beckoned us to the cafe car, but when we saw BC beer in the cooler, we opted for that instead and took our freshly cracked cans up to the dome windowed train car. Card games commenced and the three-sixty degree views were relentless in beauty. Northern BC’s landscape was as untouched and wild as we had heard – our first glimpse at the undeveloped trail potential had our bike brains in a tizzy but our hearts wanted it to stay raw, there are already more trails than riders in this neck of the woods, let the wild stay wild.
Prior to hearing our first “all aboard” we started our northern BC bike endeavors by flying into Terrace BC. A blink of an eye flight out of the large and modern Vancouver International Airport landed us in a simpler place. A place with only three runways but more importantly, a place with bike trails in epic proportions.
Heading north in the summer means longer days and longer days lead to more riding. Fresh from the plane Trish and I built bikes in the light drizzle outside the airport when we spotted our pal in his Tacoma complete with a North Shore Rack and one bike. Adding ours to the mix we agreed to sneak in an evening lap. And we ate humble pie for dinner.
Terrace Mountain entertained us and provided a few head-scratching moments on how to climb the well-loved Steinhoe Spring Creek trail clean. The locals seemed to have it down pat but it was evident that Trish and I had been busy in the bike park prior to this trip and neglecting our climbing. We completed “Down Tube” in the dark and checked into our Treehouse, yes really. We slept soundly next to the world-renowned salmon-rich Skeena River that the train tracks follow across Northern BC from our elevated cabin with a bragable porch.
I have to admit our morning plan was probably the only “we’ll figure it out on the fly” moment of the whole trip. We had so much to ride with easy access from the train on this trip but we’d set our eyes on Copper Mountain – a decent jaunt from our treehouse accommodations and a mountain that is traditionally shuttled. The big question mark was how two girls with limited connections were going to get shuttle laps in without any previous coordination. We headed into the coffee shop to make a plan of an attack, luck had us, a block away was a bike shop. With the twist of a rubber arm, we found ourselves being toted up the mountain by an eager Wild Bike shop employee. Upon our parking lot arrival, we met Tyler Wilkes – the present of the local bike trail crew known as TORCA. This moment changed our “winging it day” into the best day possible.
Tyler and his pal shuttled us, let me take their photos and provided endless insider info to Copper Mountain singletrack. The hospitality spilled over to lunch as Tyler insisted we eat at his place, rally more of his crew and head to Terrace Mountain for redemption on the struggle of a climb we ensured the night before. He convinced us that he had a better reward awaiting our climbing efforts, a trail by the name of Shangri-La, which I still dream about this tech flow trail months later. Long steep rock slabs coated in moss had just enough bare rock for your tire width and side hits galore, this trail had no rules, the rider determined how it would be ridden and each rider made their own dance down the trail. Easily a trip favorite.
Beers were clearly on us after such hospitality.
NEW HAZELTON, BC
Our first stop on the train had us quite literally jumping out in the district of New Hazelton. With a population of less than 500 we were surprised to see such a freshly developed trail network and of this caliber nonetheless. Best uphill of the whole trip. Smooth, perfect grade, lapable all day long. Multiple times we found ourselves at the lookout starting across the Skeena River at the towering Rocher Dedouble Mountain Range.
It was evident, we had said our goodbyes to the coastal vibes of Terrace BC and were without a doubt interior now. Rock and tech were the theme of Laskowski and flowy jumps were the theme of Back 2 School, a welcome contrast to switch up each lap.
Hands down the most genuine town in Northern BC, Smithers always steals a little bit of my heart. The lively mountain community is thriving. Grown men wander around town in their fishing waders talking about the Skeena and Bulkley Rivers in a jargon-filled language I can barely follow. Young kids glide around on their push bikes. The hikers plot their next adventure with boots laced and poles in hand. And as for the mountain bikers, they sit on patios respectfully keeping their muddy attire out of the picturesque establishments relishing their most recent ride. Smithers’s heartbeat is alive and thriving. While feeling all the feels for this place, I look over at Trish’s face and her jaw is gapping with a smile and eyes glistening – clearly she’d had the Smithers spell cast on her too.
Shuttle laps, yes, please.
The Piper zone is all about it. Accurately named after a Piper plane crash, the plane is now a feature in one of the trails for the brave who dare to gap it. A smooth forest service road that leads to the local ski hill, Hudson Bay Mountain Resort hosts a series of trails that require a shuttle drop. If you don’t happen to have random friends in this far away town you can probably make them, or hire the Smithers Mountain Bike Shuttle for a drop anywhere in town for a small fee. Starting out steep and narrow all the trails in the Piper zone seem to open up with more and more features and flow as the long descent nears the bottom – a full sampler in a single ride.
In attempts to hide my 30th birthday, I failed. Old friends and new ones alike seemed to love the excuse to let a bit more loose than normal at the Smithers Brewery. I blame the juicy sours and friendly locals but the next morning riding in the Bluffs Recreational Area wasn’t smooth. The oldest trails of Smithers lie here and you can feel the ghosts of biking past come alive in the purposely tight corners and wood structures. OG and tech riders rejoice, this is your sweet spot. Hungover humans who dig flow, buckle up, you’re about to learn a few things, and that’s exactly what I did. While my company was frothing over each trail, my first love was the giant Wheel of Fortune trail section sign mounted to a tree with a pull string. My next love after a few rounds of sweat therapy and water was “Auntie Flo”. She was steep, bermy, and poppy.
Revisiting the Bluffs the following morning had me loving Remembrance Day and Broken Axe. New day, new human, new trail love, who dis? A reminder not to judge a network on ride one, day one, or hungover – but you really shouldn’t be doing much hungover. Why am I still learning this?
Another train station hang had us faffing about with bikes when to our surprise another biker approached us. Turns out the sixty-something year old with downhill pads on and a fancy new Santa Cruise was an off duty train conductor that just finished a ride in the Bluffs. He was coming to say hi to his coworking who was driving the train we were waiting for. The bond of bikers is strong in the north. He passed along a few nugs of info about our next destination and we thanked him as we boarded and settled in for a ride to Prince Geroge – our easternmost destination of the trip.
PRINCE GEORGE, BC
Passing Burns Lake felt like a sin after hearing its praises from bikers all week long. Nearly every person we talked to on the trail told us if we were traveling in Northern BC for biking we had to stop in Burns Lake – it was too lake for schedule changes of this caliber but boy oh boy did we window shop it like crazy and promise to ourselves that we’d be back.
Three black bears, one fox, and countless lakes passed us by as we traveled from Smithers to Prince George. I’d seen this landscape coated in snow before but the vibrant greens suited it and my bike intentions much better.
Checking into the Coast Hotel downtown Prince George had Trish and I feeling like princesses – muddy ones, but nothing the steam shower couldn’t fix. The evening was spent exploring the town. Flying under the radar, Prince George isn’t talked about much in Western BC but the food culture is rich, the university campus is stunning and the river flowing through town makes for a nature-infused city center. But let’s get real, we were there to bike and biking couldn’t have been more convenient to access from town despite PG’s sprawling footprint, accessing the multitude of trail networks wasn’t a problem.
We scouted University Hill but went off of locals’ recommendations to hit Pidherny first and once we were there we just couldn’t seem to leave it and the neighboring Otway trails. Warm(ish) summer rain found us in Prince George and we tapped out of riding mid-afternoon in exchange for dry clothes and hot drinks. As she goes, the minute we were dry the sun came out and we had antsy pants to squeeze in one more ride before our flight back to Vancouver that evening.
It was time to free ride.
Or was it?
Trish spotted some cheeky sandstone bluffs that spilled onto the road below. In the right conditions they could and had been ridden – but rarely. We hoped the rain would have provided the perfect tacky conditions to give it a green light. Trish pushed her bike up the steep unforgiving hill, carried it on her back and lugged it at her side – not an easy pursuit. I struggled behind her with camera gear alone. Finally, atop the scouted line, she mounted her bike and with each attempt, the ground just crumbled beneath her bike. With our friend Kyle in the truck below keeping an eye on the time of our flight he finally hollered up – we’d have to abandon the mission and get to the airport.
Saying “no” has always left me feeling accomplished rather than defeated when it comes to safety, like when mother nature gives you the hint that she’s not “down” with your shenanigans. And it was clear, today she didn’t want to give us a go. That’s okay, we got extra cardio and an extra laugh – the only one who may have suffered was Kyle. He doesn’t like to be late, especially when it comes to airports.
Deconstructing bikes and filling bike bags at the airport while covered in dust wasn’t the most comfortable look for the flight attendants checking us in, but surely they’d seen worse. We were kind of used to being a quirky spectacle with our odd method of travel on this trip, might as well keep the theme going until the very end.
The takeaways? Northern BC isn’t talked about much online, but the beta is all there for an epic bike trip. Northern hospitality is unreal and the souls are generous. Trails are well maintained and new networks are popping up constantly. Traveling by train? It’s not for type A’s or people with tight schedules, but it is for the adventurous who enjoy the scenic route, not dealing with rental cars and are down with cracking a beer while someone else takes you to your destination.
Final call, I’d do it all over again. Easy.